How To Keep Work-Life Balance As A Freelancer & Avoid That Awful Burnout
At the beginning of this year, I decided to go freelance. I had been freelance once before, but that was more a case of being unemployed, rather than an active decision on my part. At first, I found it hard to secure work and even harder to summon the strength to get out of bed. But once I had found regular clients, getting up each morning became pain-free. What was now difficult was ensuring I pleased my clients, my friends and family, and myself. I'm still learning, so I asked some more experienced freelancers for tips on how to keep a work-life balance as a freelancer.
Their words of wisdom range from ensuring you stick to a schedule to learning to say no to certain opportunities that come your way. Some pieces of advice aren't easy to swallow. After all, it's easy to mentally punish yourself when you don't achieve what you set out to do, when you receive negative feedback, or when a job goes so wrong you have no idea why you took it on in the first place.
But remembering that you deserve respect and breaks just like any regular employed person will serve you well in your freelance journey. And even if you haven't taken the plunge just yet, these tips may still be relevant to future you. Consultancy.uk estimates that the UK currently has two million freelancers, and that figure is only set to continue to rise.
1. Remember To Switch Off
As musical theatre actress Vienna Love puts it: "You have to remember that there are more important things in life than just work. Sometimes, you’ve got to prioritise your loved ones and forgive yourself for it." She's totally right. It can be difficult to give yourself a break, especially when you know you're not going to be paid for it. But constant working will only lead to burnout; something which I have experienced plenty of times.
It's important to ensure you have just as much holiday as an employed person would, and to schedule downtime on a daily basis. Matthew Knight recommends blocking out time on a calendar for even the simplest of things. "It might seem crazy to have to create an appointment for something like 'eat lunch', but it can help create a visible intervention," he says. Michael Samy, co-founder of StoryGen PR also takes the time to spend a couple of hours to himself: "Whether it's meeting a friend for coffee, going for dinner with my other half, or walking the dogs, I will leave my phone at home. I call it protected sanity time."
Of course, most freelancers will know the perils of being unable to mentally switch off from work. "You can partake in as many social events as you like. However, if you're constantly thinking about work, it's pointless," says digital PR Emma Gilbey. She times each of her tasks, adding them to a time sheet at the end of each day. Not only does this allow her to see how much she has accomplished, it also "settles the nerves" and allows for a much-deserved break.
2. Find A Routine
When you first step into the freelance world, you'll think of one word: freedom. Unfortunately, this can often mean starting your self-employed journey with lie-ins and days watching TV. In other words, you have no routine.
"The whole 'wake up whenever, work when you feel like it' stereotype feels great for a day or two, but it can put you behind on deadlines pretty quickly and that never leads to anything good," says freelancer Chloe Brooks. To combat this unnecessary stress, set yourself a routine.
It doesn't have to be the traditional nine to five. (That's the beauty of being freelance.) Many freelancers wake up early and power through a few hours of work before giving themselves the entire afternoon and evening off. Others work in "shifts"; doing a couple of hours first thing, having a substantial break, then getting back to work for another few hours.
3. Treat Yourself Like An Employee
When you are your company, it can be hard to distinguish between being an employer and employee. But several freelancers believe you should treat yourself like the latter. That means giving yourself benefits like a pension and learning to let things go at the end of the working day.
"Don't be the boss from hell to yourself," says Sara Teiger. "I'm only just learning after 17 years not to be a total tyrant." If things go wrong, don't beat yourself up about it. Remember that you're only human and mistakes can often be easily fixed.
4. Create An Office Space
I'm not going to lie; I still occasionally spend a day working on the sofa. This probably isn't the best place to set your virtual office up as it's a breeding ground for distraction. Instead, experienced freelancers advise creating a separate workspace up. This could be a desk in your house or a desk in a shared working facility full of other freelancers.
"Don't eat there, don't sleep there, don't watch TV there," says Brooks. "Train your brain that when you're in that spot, it's go time. Otherwise you'll find yourself cosied up on the sofa pretending to work, but really you're just checking your email for three hours." Guilty.
Gilbey has a rule that once she leaves her home office, she is not allowed to return until the next day. You can still separate home and work, even if you don't have an entire room to dedicate to an office. Freelance digital marketing consultant Jodie Humphries has a workspace in a corner of one room but tries to ignore any and all home-related stuff until the end of the working day. Yes, even the dirty dishes.
5. Learn To Say No
It's so easy to fall into the trap of saying yes to absolutely every request that comes your way. When you're relying on your own hustling skills to survive, why would you ever say no? But saying yes one too many times can keep that pile of work sky high and can quickly lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed.
Don't get into the habit of accepting every work offer that comes your way. Before giving an answer, take some time to think if you really have the hours to dedicate to it and if the price the client is offering is really too good to turn down. If the answers to both of these are no, you know what to do.
6. Stay Healthy
Whether it's not leaving the house for a week or getting so caught up in your work that you forget to eat and drink, it's important to keep yourself healthy. If you're a gym bunny, take the time to go to a class a couple of times a week. If you can't think of anything worse, try and set aside 20 minutes each day for a brisk walk. Gilbey highly recommends getting a dog to effectively force yourself outside.
Erin Williams believes it's useful to plan your meals in advance, just like you would if you worked in an office. "Failing to do so could mean skipping a meal and snacking instead of having balanced meals," she adds.
7. Get Dressed
There's that cliché saying that states you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have. When you're freelance, that theory goes out the window. There will be days where you won't have gotten dressed, but try to keep these to a minimum. Even putting on a T-shirt and jeans can help you get in a work mindset, allowing you to wake up and get things done, rather than laze around.
8. Avoid Distraction
Social media equals a huge distraction when you don't have a boss looking over your shoulder. As a journalist, I'm expected to keep up with the news but I often find myself wasting time on Twitter for an hour when I could have written half an article. How do you find that balance?
Knight advises turning off all of the notifications on your phone or switching your phone to its "do not disturb" mode when working. Social media can be a trickier one as I'm sure I'm not the only one mindlessly scrolling throughout the day. However, try to set yourself a 15 minute block every couple of hours to check your various feeds. When the time is up, it's back to work.
9. Network With Others
Freelancing can be lonely, especially when you live in areas without easy access to co-working spaces and when the cost of travel plays a huge part in any social decisions. While it's good to try and find a few freelance friends to meet up with IRL every now and then, you can also become part of a freelance community in other ways.
Facebook has countless groups where freelancers offer advice and support and where various freelance-related events are advertised. Knight also recommends Leapers; a network of like-minded people who are looking to move to a new working pattern. "It really helps to have people around you who understand the pressures and challenges," he adds.
Striking up a harmonious work-life balance isn't something that's going to happen overnight. But take all of the above tips on board and you'll soon find yourself in a happier mental and physical state.